Seventeenth century intrigue…April 24th, 2020
Henry VII, an upstart Tudor, takes the throne of England in 1485 after the death of Richard III (more about him later) and enters into an arranged marriage with Elizabeth Woodville in the interesting 2017 Starz mini-series, The White Princess. The marriage, which neither King Henry nor Elizabeth really want, is intended to permanently end the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster (The War of the Roses.) Tthere are all the usual plot turns: threats against Henry’s life from within the castle and without, secret letters, potential usurpers of the throne, threats from foreign powers, people whose loyalty is questionable, etc. The primary sub-plot is the growing attraction between Henry and Elizabeth. It’s a nicely paced, nicely acted, and nicely photographed, historical drama. There is even a plague in the land at one point—no social distancing back then, but people do wear rather fantastical plague masks.
Stepping back in time to Henry VII’s predecessor on the throne of England, Richard III, there’s a fascinating 1995 film called Richard III starring Ian McKellen and Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Robert Downey, Jr. I highly recommend this offbeat movie. It is fast paced, with great acting and great sets. It is especially fascinating for being set in an alternate timeline 1930’s England, which under Richard’s despotic reign, is becoming increasingly fascist. The film stays relatively true to Shakespeare’s play of the same name, and the film dialogue consists mostly of original Shakespearean lines—which works very well.
A third historical film, which you may already have seen but which bears a second viewing, is Shakespeare in Love. Take another look at it if for no other reason than to celebrate Will Shakespeare’s birthday, which was April 23. This 1998 film stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes and Judi Dench (as Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter by Anne Boleyn.) It’s a fun, fast moving, love story that mixes in all the elements of English playwriting and acting at a time when plays and the theater were first coming into existence. Christopher Marlowe (played by Rupert Everett) has a cameo appearance in the film and is rightly called ‘the best among us’ by his fellow actors and playwrights including Shakespeare. In real life Marlowe died at age twenty-nine in a fight in a bar. But not before writing a handful of plays, two of which are among the greatest in the English language (Tamberlaine, and the Tragedy of Dr. Faustus).
Here’s a bit of historical trivia: prior to approximately the year 1550 there were no plays performed, and no public theaters anywhere in Europe.
In ancient Greece there had been plays. Later, Imperial Rome had plays, but both were vastly different in purpose and form from plays as we know them. During the dark ages there were pageants depicting biblical passages, sponsored by the church and intended to teach piety. But there were no entertainments aside from travelling minstrels and occasional small groups of players who typically played only for the nobility.
Then in London, in the years immediately before and after the year 1600, everything changed. A unique new form of entertainment emerged, the play, intended for the common people. These new plays were entirely fictional dramas, involving the adventures of characters with real human emotions, speaking lines in vernacular English. And they had only one purpose: to entertain the common people who paid a penny each to attend. A new art form was born.